Oct 262008
Authors: Anne Marie Merline

One of my columns last year highlighted a student in my community course, Katie, who ended up facilitating a discussion on the issue of immigration and how that issue fostered the idea of social capital, which is the degree of connectedness in society. That interaction in the classroom happened serendipitously.

In my classroom two weeks ago, I considered the implications of handing over the discussion to a student deliberately.

One of the joys of mid-semester is that I get caught up on all of the written assignments from the beginning of the semester and all of the assignments that follow. During the summer, I always think that these assignments are a great idea until all of them come across my desktop and I have to find the fortitude to sit down and read them and send comments back to my students.

Well, yes, I got caught up two weeks ago, and I actually got to the point where I can correct the students’ work before I get to the class session in which we are discussing them.

In my seminar about public education and inequality, we were discussing the different ways that males and females are treated in the American K-12 educational system. In my opinion, one of my students, Lanette, “hit the nail on the head.”

In an agree/disagree response asking her to examine the author’s bias of how public education shortchanges boys she examined the larger picture of how society is still one that favors men in terms of power, prestige, wealth and income.

In my teaching experience, gender — next to the ferocity that we discuss issues of racial inequality — is always a topic that gives rise to passionate discussion in the classroom. We have to sift through the nature/nurture debate, personal experiences and opinions, the social and psychological research and the ways that we communicate all of these ideas to each other.

Although the author of the article that we were reading to cover the issue of gender education used convincing numbers to prove her point, Lanette had the critical thinking skills to question how much we, as a nation, blame the schools for the social ills of the nation, and the motivations of individual students.

I wanted Lanette to be the teacher for the day — to sit back and let her continue her thoughts with the rest of the class.

Although I did not do that, I did ask her to expand on her ideas. The class rose to the occasion as they discussed the issue for the entire 75 minutes of the class without a pause.

My job as an instructor is to engage my students with the material and with each other.

As a rule, instructors in higher education lecture to their students even though educational research shows that this is the least likely way to engage students. Learning by doing is the best way to impart knowledge.

In the seminar format around which the Honors Program is designed, students are actively engaged. They are not only a part of the discussion they are the discussion — they propel ideas forward, and they actively question the ideas presented.

This idea of Lanette of taking responsibility for the classroom, of course would have not been fair. That is not her role; it is my job. I have been teaching this course for many years; I know most of the arguments, what will come up in the discussion and how to facilitate the topics that will come up year in and year out.

Lanette, nor any student, could anticipate all of these perspectives. It did, however, make me wonder how prepared students are on any given day to step up and lead a discussion of the day’s material in any given class for which they are registered.

What if your instructor asked you to do just this? Are you ready?

Anne Marie Merline is an instructor for the University Honors Program. Her column appears biweekly Mondays in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to letters@collegian.com.

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